By Stephen Baxter
"When his father dies suddenly, George Poole stumbles onto a family secret; He has a twin sister he never knew existed, who was raised by an enigmatic cult called the Order. The Order is a hive--a human hive with a dominant queen--that has prospered below the streets of Rome for almost two millennia. After Poole enters the Order's vast underground city and meets the disturbing inhabitants, he uncovers evidence that they have embarked on a divergent evolutionary path. These genetically superior humans are equipped with the tools necessary to render modern Homo sapiens as extinct as the Neanderthal. And now they are preparing to leave their underground realm."
First of all, the back cover info is a trifle misleading, which is a shame because the real story is just as good and absorbing as the cover hype. The book weaves together three narratives: George Poole's first person mystery as he searches for his lost sister; the historical fiction 5th Century exploits of one of his ancestors, Regina, who lives through the fall of the Roman Empire in Britain, moves to Rome, and founds the Order; and the modern SF story of Lucia, one of the members of the Order. Of the three, I found George's story to be the weakest. He is basically a foil for introducing the other two and a stand-in for the reader; someone to whom things can be explained rather than an active agent. As the book progressed, I actually became a little impatient with the George story and always looked forward to the next installments of Regina and Lucia.
The book is a fascinating meld of science fiction and historical fiction. Baxter does a great job showing how the withdrawal of Rome from Britain resulted in the rapid decline of cities, withering of trade, decline of population and the loss of education and skills; in other words, the rapid onset of the Dark Ages in just a couple of generations. King Arthur makes an appearance--as two different characters that are frequently cited as sources for the legend--as well as Merlin. Baxter also does a credible job of creating the Order, giving it a sound basis in science and biology, and evolving it through 1500 years to the semblance of a hive. Although there is no dominant queen and they don't "plan" an invasion of the rest of earth, as trumpeted in the back matter. He also leaves a mysterious light in the ancient sky and a strange glowing artifact in the contemporary story unresolved. I'm assuming he'll address that in subsequent books.
I do have a nit to pick. Baxter has a penchant for punning names. In another book I reviewed, his rogue protagonist was Malenfant (bad child in French.) In this one, the founding mother of the Order is Regina (queen.) He also named some secondary characters after historical figures that lived in those times. The fictional ones had nothing to do with the historical characters, so I found it jarring whenever they appeared. There are plenty of names that don't carry any associations, which could have easily been used. Naming is a tricky thing and there is nothing wrong with using a name to reinforce a character, but if it pulls the reader out of the story, it's a distraction.
To summarize, I enjoyed the book. The writing is straight-forward, the characters interesting, the plot unique. Baxter is a deep thinker who sprinkles his narrative with discussions of social behavior, philosophy, morals, and science. I'd recommend this book to both the SF and HF communities.